Monday, November 17, 2008

George Hill's Strange Start

Spurs rookie George Hill is off to a good start in San Antonio. The shooting guard turned point is starting in place of the injured Tony Parker, averaging 8 points in 22 minutes per game. Last Friday, in a win against the Rockets, Hill played an impressive 36 minutes on 8 for 13 for 17 points. He added 6 rebounds and 5 assists with zero turnovers to his line. Those of us who watch San Antonio closely marvel at how far he's come since a shaky summer league.

Night-to-night, he is still an uneven player (last night, for example, he attempted to play the Kings in a full-on rookie daze, looking hesitant and unsure on every possession), his skill set is impressive, and it's improving with each week. His 13.15 PER is solid for a rookie, especially one playing a new position. If he can couple this production with floor leadership and confidence within the system, Hill will be a marked improvement over Jacques Vaughn (7.04 PER) whose only assets are intelligence and floor leadership.

The current Spurs back court is greatly improved over last season's squad. In addition to Hill's per minute production, consider that George Mason Jr. maintains a 16.49 PER, which dwarfs Finley's 11.35 from a year ago. Finley lost weight in the off season and is playing much better this year, although his PER more or less remains the same. Mason and Hill were immediate defensive upgrades over Finley and Vaughn, and will become more effective as they learn the system.

This to say, the Spurs will have an exceptional back court rotation once Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili return, and their current scoring struggles should completely dissipate. Better still, they should be able to manage the minutes of their injured stars in order to ease them into shape while still preserving them for the playoffs. If they can figure out their front court rotation, the Spurs will be a force.

But I digress. That's the stuff of a different post. This post is about George Hill.

George Hill has a bright future in San Antonio. But his story starts with a strange preface, one that leaves the reader wondering if the Spurs are as lucky as they are smart.

Last summer, the the Spurs had promised to draft Nico Batum at 26. After he was selected by Houston, and eventually traded to Portland, Batum and Bouna Ndiaye, his agent, openly expressed discouragement about not lasting one more spot to their pledged destination of San Antonio. One well-connected draft expert told me that Ndiaye was so confident in the Spurs selection that he was shocked when Houston called his clients number.

On June 20, just prior to the draft, a rumor began to circulate that Batum had heart problems---his father is said to have died of a heart attack while playing basketball, something the family denies. In response to those rumors, he flew to the Cleveland Clinic for tests, where he was given a clean bill of health. But Ndiaya, who also represents the Spurs Ian Mahinmi, did not release the records to the the league, instead only the Spurs and Cavs, where San Antonio family members Danny Ferry and Mike Brown preside, received the test results. This odd exchange was further compounded when Batum immediately flew from Cleveland to San Antonio, worked out for the Spurs, and then withdrew from all subsequent work outs.

In other words, Batum and the Spurs cleverly manipulated the draft process to allow Batum to fall to San Antonio at 26. There is no question that the Spurs made Batum a first round promise.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 26. Hours before the draft the Spurs sent out a league-wide email shopping their pick. Yes, an email. Chad Ford reported it this way:
The Spurs sent an e-mail to every team in the league at 3:30 p.m. saying that they were willing to move the 26th pick. The e-mail asked league executives to "E-mail us your interest and your offers to 26."
The Spurs, it stands to reason, got wind of Rockets-Blazers deal and knew their man would not be available. They were in a scramble.

This is the back drop against which George Hill was drafted. The 26th pick came around and Hill, whose name did not appear in the draft media guide, and who played ball at a school some did not know existed, had his number called by the Spurs. On their live draft blog, the good folks at Draft Express simply commented, "A surprising pick to say the least."

But the surprises continued. Hill insisted that the Spurs had made him a promise: "I'm excited to be going to a class organization like the Spurs. I worked out for them twice and really hit if off with (Gregg Popovich). They told me if I was there at 26, they'd take me." On draft night, Popovich corroborated Hill's story with this confident evaluation:

The Spurs passed on Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers to select Hill, so it's not as if the Spurs were without options in the wake of Houston's selection. Hill may have been a surprise pick, but to everyone but the Spurs. Of those still available, they picked the player they wanted.

It's impossible to know which promise the Spurs would have honored if both Batum and Hill had been available at 26. My suspicion, which could never be substantiated, is that the Spurs had hoped for both players, either at 26 and 45, or through some combination of trades.

Others suggest that Popovich wanted Hill all along, and the Batum promise and email were part of an elaborate ruse to throw front office blood hounds off the Hill trail. But I'm dubious that the Spurs would go to such lengths, especially with an agent who represents a big part of their future.

It's worth noting that Popovich wasn't blowing smoke. Hill was playing even before Parker's injury. The Spurs said that he would play right away, and he did. They knew more than most; they selected their guy.

As it turns out, the Spurs were fine either way. Batum looks good in Portland, and would have been a timely addition behind Bowen and Udoka. George Hill is the real deal for San Antonio and is, at worst, a productive back up point guard. Based on his early development, he could be more. In my estimation, he could turn into Devin Harris level starter--not an All-Star, but a quality player nonetheless.

This is one of the story lines to follow if you stalk about the Alamo. For now, Spurs fans should be thankful for yet another good draft pick. Be patient with the kid--he will struggle here and there--because he's a keeper.

Update: For the benefit of future Spurs historians, I'm adding this postscript. Thanks to the Free Darko crew for unearthing this gem:

Yes, I know, it's in French. But a French-speaking friend confirms that the video more or less attests to the argument in the post above. I trust him. Won't you?

HT: Bruno from SpursTalk.


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